BY GARETH LANGDON
The Space Race, Alex Latimer’s debut outing, makes no recourse to unimaginative expectations of what constitutes “good” South African literature. While the local backdrop allows for some enjoyable South Africanisms, and imaginings of our beloved landscape, the story unfolds in such a way that emphasises plot more than character or place, thus carefully avoiding any contentious engagement with a South African canon.
Vastrap is an underground nuclear space program and the centre of the novel’s conflict — an ambitious and well-funded project left over from the apartheid years and aimed at colonising a distant moon. When Charlotte, an unassuming thirty-something, stumbles upon the hangar in the present day, she sets in motion a set of harrowing events, involving a cast of interesting characters.
Latimer has a lucid writing style and creatively incorporates several literary techniques. The words of the cynical, but ambitious freelance journalist Greg Hall book-end the main narrative, which is itself interspersed with italicised sections that relay a mysterious broadcast from space. The broadcast is discovered by a sleepy intern on a night shift at a space research center and serves as the catalyst for Greg’s investigation into the crater which has suddenly appeared at Vastrap. The italics and non-linearity allow for a multiply-voiced plot without leaving you feeling as though you’ve been through the ringer and can’t keep up with the book’s fast-paced action and shocking plot twists. While the bulk of the story is written with an omniscient narrator, the narration at times becomes focused on other characters, namely Charlotte and Lindy, allowing for a film-like experience of scene switching.
On the whole, The Space Race is a page-turner, eking out ever-new directions for the South African novel. While Latimer may be criticized for a re-re-hashing of South African stereotypes (the Afrikaner villain Stefan comes to mind) and a failure to really come to terms with the implications of this, he writes with an adept hand. An exciting read, The Space Race sets the bar high for future fiction from the author.
The Space Race is published by Umuzi, R180.